Nixon’s War 5

Stiffened by messages, Thieu balked at sending diplomats to Paris until four days before Nixon’s inauguration on January 20, 1969. His pretext was alleged displeasure with the seating accommodations for an expanded conference, which accorded formal rank to the Vietcong delegation. He directed Bui Diem to inform the lame-duck Johnson administration that “even the appearance” of the Vietcong as a distinct entity was unacceptable, calling the proposed table arrangement a “Communist trap” that would disrupt his regime and demoralize his army. Weeks of farcical haggling yielded a compromise, but Thieu’s boycott had been prompted by more than guile. He foresaw that recognition of the Vietcong as a partner in the negotiations would inevitably give it official status inimical to his claim to elusive legit¬imacy. At that stage, however, Nixon and Kissinger had no inkling of the frustrations that Thieu would eventually cause them. Their priority was to get the North Vietnamese to concede to their terms for peace.
On the morning of November 25, 1968, responding to a telephone summons, Kissinger went to President-elect Nixon’s headquarters at the Hotel Pierre in New York. The two men had not met during Kissinger’s months as a secret informer. They chatted—and Kissinger departed, uncertain what Nixon had in mind for him. The next day, he learned from John Mitchell that Nixon wanted him as national security adviser. At another meeting with Nixon a day later, Kissinger accepted. But, to keep on good terms with them, he went through the motions of consulting Rockefeller and a few Harvard colleagues.
A president who concentrates on domestic social, economic and racial problems faces the long and tedious business of bargaining with legislators, lobbyists and even rival factions within his own cabinet, often without achieving rapid results. But the international arena is glittery and immediate; a politician can resemble a statesman as he circles the globe amid the glamour of summit meetings with world leaders. Unlike Johnson, who would have preferred to focus on in¬ternal issues, Nixon intended to devote himself primarily to foreign affairs. And Nixon, even more than Johnson, distrusted the State Department and the CIA—which in his opinion were staffed by Ivy League liberals who had disdained or disregarded him in the past. The center of authority, he believed, ought to be the White House. Kis¬singer agreed. In his Harvard doctoral dissertation, published as A World Restored, he had stressed that officialdom was by its very nature opposed to the formulation of bold and imaginative decisions: “The essence of bureaucracy is its quest for safety; its success is calculability. Profound policy thrives on perpetual creation, on a constant redefi¬nition of goals. . . . Bureaucracies are designed to execute, not to conceive.”
During the transition period, as he organized his administration, Nixon directed Kissinger to “revitalize” the national security coun¬cil—and gave him the latitude to assemble his own team. Kissinger’s recruits included Colonel Alexander Haig, then back from military duty in Vietnam; Anthony Lake, a foreign service officer with Vietnam experience; and Morton Halperin, a deputy assistant secretary of de¬fense who had helped to tilt Clark Clifford against the war. Relying on a blueprint largely drafted by Halperin, they began to revamp the decision-making apparatus so as to curb the influence of the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. The new structure was shaped to put Kissinger in charge of an array of government committees, thus assuring his control over the recommendations flowing to the president. Roger Morris, a member of the Kissinger group, was to call the renovation “a seizure of power unprecedented in modern American foreign policy.”
Nixon’s secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, was to be a difficult obstacle to the new setup. Nixon had chosen him because, as a veteran Republican congressman, Laird could sway friends on Capitol Hill. But because he had his own constituency, Laird felt that he deserved his own direct access to the president. Kissinger soon fixed that by opening up an indirect channel from the White House to the joint chiefs of staff, thereby circumventing Laird.
Excluding the secretary of state, William Rogers, was easier. Nixon had picked Rogers, an affable lawyer who had been Eisenhower’s attorney general, because his unfamiliarity with international affairs guaranteed the direction of policy from the White House. Rogers’s lack of interest in the subject was confirmed as early as Inauguration Day. While the major figures in the new administration were attending ceremonies, lowlier officials deposited on Rogers’s desk a fat volume containing position papers on all the major issues. “You don’t expect me to read all this stuff, do you?” remarked Rogers when he noticed the book afterward. The comment swiftly reached Kissinger’s aides, one of whom later recalled to me: “From then on, we knew that we wouldn’t have any trouble with State. ”
In that same month of January 1969, Foreign Affairs published an article on Vietnam by Kissinger, written before he joined Nixon, which eloquently outlined his views on the war. He maintained that General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition was hopeless, since the Communists could sustain far higher casualties than the United States and would therefore “win” as long as they did not “lose.” He also minimized the significance of the military setback suffered by the Communists during the Tet offensive; its impact on the American public placed limits on further U.S. escalation and made “inevitable” the need for a diplomatic solution to the war. The question was how to reach a settlement.
Kissinger’s negotiating script was not especially original. He favored a separation of the military and political issues, as Johnson had. The Americans and North Vietnamese would deal only with such military matters as a cease-fire and the mutual withdrawal of their troops from the south, leaving it to the Saigon regime and the Vietcong to hammer out a political agreement. He could appreciate the complexity of the diplomacy, which required that the United States reach an accom-modation with its adversaries without antagonizing its allies—neither of whom showed any signs of compromising. And he foresaw possible future obstacles, which were indeed to become crucial. While con¬ceding that the South Vietnamese government should have a “major voice” in the discussions, he drew the line at its right to veto an accord—a hint that the United States might compel its client to accept an agreement if it looked attractive. He also sensed that the North Vietnamese might turn out to be intransigent, in which case he ad¬vocated that America continue to maintain a presence in Vietnam on a reduced scale.

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